Politics & Policy

It’S Not Over

What's next for John Bolton?

At Thursday night’s right-wing tribute to Tom DeLay, the evening began with an opening remark on John Bolton from event emcee Cleta Mitchell. Mitchell told the crowd it was “a good day” for conservatives. She accentuated the positive, noting Bolton had escaped the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and was on his way to a full Senate floor vote. The crowd at the Capitol Hilton erupted in loud cheers. It was a fine moment to acknowledge and celebrate Bolton’s advance, but the battle over his nomination is far from over.

It took less than an hour for the SFRC to endanger the nomination of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. After missing the first two Bolton hearings and delaying a committee vote on Bolton’s nomination an additional month, Ohio Republican George Voinovich Thursday ensured that Bolton would not leave the committee with a positive recommendation.

Committee chairman Richard Lugar began Thursday’s proceedings by refuting the charges against Bolton and then describing some of Bolton’s indisputable career highlights. Normally, the discussion would then shift to the ranking committee Democrat, in this case Joe Biden. However, Voinovich made a special request to speak second and Biden relented. In his opening remarks, Voinovich asked, “What kind of message are we sending to the world when we nominate someone who has been accused of being arrogant, someone who has been accused of acting unilaterally…the very characteristics as a nation we are trying to dispel?” By 11:00 A.M., it was clear a discussion scheduled to run from 10:30 to 3:30 was essentially over.

Voinovich went on to make several disparaging remarks about Bolton’s reputation, declaring Bolton “would have been fired if he worked for a major corporation” based on the behavioral allegations against him, though some might question Voinovich’s wisdom on the matter as he has been working in government for nearly 40 years. However, Voinovich insisted, “I am not arrogant enough to believe” that his opinion alone should eliminate Bolton’s opportunity to serve at the United Nations. At Voinovich’s suggestion, the debate continued with the apparent agreement that the committee would vote to send Bolton’s nomination to the floor without a recommendation.

Knowing their immediate victory was at hand, Democrats on the SFRC went to work on Bolton some more. John Kerry wondered aloud how the United Nations would react to an Ambassador Bolton, “When he comes in people will be asking, ‘Is he sitting on one of the floors he wants to eliminate?’” Barack Obama took it one step further, rehashing an allegation already proven false that Bolton tried to have colleagues “fired” for disagreements over intelligence assessments. What’s worse, no one on the committee, Democrat or Republican, attempted to correct him.

Once the vote was finally called Bolton passed through the committee on party lines ten to eight without recommendation. So, what does that mean? Though rare, past presidential nominees have left their respective committees without recommendation. There were worse fates that could have befallen Bolton’s nomination. He could have left the committee with a negative recommendation or not left at all had the administration withdrawn his nomination.

The battle over Bolton’s nomination now heads to the full Senate, where his odds for success are generally considered more favorable. There was much speculation as to whether SFRC Republicans Lincoln Chafee, Chuck Hagel, and Lisa Murkowski would support Bolton. All indicated yesterday they would have supported a positive recommendation for Bolton out of committee. All are now likely to insist their decisions on Bolton are not final. What this means is another round of congressional lobbying from Bolton, Vice President Dick Cheney, and White House lobbyist Candi Wolff. If this trio of Republican Senators stays on board, Bolton’s successful nomination is all but guaranteed. A White House source says they are cautiously optimistic about the chances to win support from a few Democrats as well. Based on the performance of the SFRC, this may seem hard to believe on the surface, but if the White House and Bolton handle the situation correctly, it’s still possible.

The White House and members from both parties know this nomination is about more than sending John Bolton to the United Nations.

If his nomination is successful it will send a powerful message that the United States demands reform from the world body. As RNC chair Ken Mehlman said yesterday, “From the Oil-for-Food scandal to the resolution equating Zionism and racism to membership on the Human Rights Commission, the U.N. has repeatedly shown the world that it needs to be reformed. John Bolton is the right man to make these reforms and promote an effective U.N. by standing up for America’s interests and restoring confidence in the United Nations.”

Conversely, should Bolton’s nomination fail, it would be a strong setback for President Bush’s foreign policy. Democrats and many in the media would treat it as no less than a rebuke of Iraq’s liberation and the Bush doctrine of promoting freedom abroad. American critics in the United Nations would be able to cite Bolton’s defeat as evidence that even the American people are dissatisfied with America’s image and role on the world stage.

Democrats know they have little chance of defeating Bolton in a fair up-or-down vote in the Senate. For weeks, rumors swirled on liberal blogs that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was considering a filibuster of Bolton’s nomination. Yesterday, the rumor segued into reality as the question took on greater weight. Immediately after yesterday’s SFRC vote, CNN’s Judy Woodruff put the question to Joe Biden, who said, “Whether or not there’s a filibuster is too early to tell.” A GOP source in the Senate yesterday told me if the vote were scheduled for today he would not expect Democrats to filibuster Bolton’s nomination, but that could change. “If we are able to successfully end the filibuster on judicial nominations, they will be looking for revenge. Filibustering Bolton would play to their base and be seen as a great act of defiance by those against the war in Iraq.”

In the meantime, it will be up to the White House, Bill Frist, and John Bolton himself to rally Republican support behind Bolton’s nomination. There is much more at stake than one man’s nomination to a post many deride as insignificant. In the past year, President Bush has had many foreign-policy success stories to savor. His reelection provided vindication of the war on terror. Successful elections in Iraq bolstered that point of view. The White House has even received nearly unanimous praise for its renewed efforts to engage the international community. However, a defeat of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would be a setback from which it would be hard to recover.

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